Fertility rates fall, population increase goes on
July 24th 2012
Jaipur, India — Ramjee Lal Kumhar and his bride, Mamta, first laid eyes on each other inside a billowing wedding tent festooned with garlands of marigolds. He was 11 years old. She was 10. Their families had arranged the marriage. The couple delighted their parents by producing a son when they were both 13. They had a daughter 2½ years later. To support the family, Ramjee gave up his dream of finishing school and opened a cramped shop that sells snacks, tea and tobacco on the muddy road through his village. At 15 and finally able to grow a mustache, Ramjee made a startling announcement: He was done having children. ‘We cannot afford it,’ he said, standing with arms crossed in the dirt courtyard of the compound he shares with 12 relatives, a cow, several goats and some chickens in the northern state of Rajasthan. Horrified, his mother and grandmother pleaded with him to reconsider. ‘Having one son is like having one eye,’ his grandmother said. ‘You need two eyes.’
How many children to have is an intensely personal matter, often a source of family debate. But the decisions made by Ramjee, Mamta and others their age will have repercussions far beyond their own families and villages. They are members of the largest generation in history — more than 3 billion people worldwide under the age of 25. About 1.2 billion of them are adolescents just entering their reproductive years. If they choose, collectively, to have smaller families than their elders did, the world’s population — now 7 billion — will continue to grow, but more slowly. According to United Nations projections, the number will rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 — the equivalent of adding another India and China to the world. That’s an optimistic scenario, one that assumes the worldwide average birthrate, now 2.5 children per woman, will decline to 2.1. If birthrates stay where they are, the population is expected to reach 11 billion by midcentury — akin to adding three Chinas. Under either forecast, scientists say, living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity. Water, food and arable land will be more scarce, cities more crowded and hunger more widespread. On a planet with 11 billion people, however, all those problems will be worse.
The outcome hinges on the cumulative decisions of hundreds of millions of young people around the globe. The relentless growth in population might seem paradoxical given that the world’s average birthrate has been slowly falling for decades. Humanity’s numbers continue to climb because of what scientists call population momentum. So many people are now in their prime reproductive years — the result of unchecked fertility in decades past, coupled with reduced child mortality — that even modest rates of childbearing yield huge increases. ‘We’re still adding more than 70 million people to the planet every year — which we have been doing since the 1970s,’ said John Bongaarts, a leading demographer and vice president of the nonprofit Population Council in New York. ‘We’re still in the steep part of the curve.’ Think of population growth as a speeding train. When the engineer applies the brakes, the train doesn’t stop immediately. Momentum propels it forward a considerable distance before it finally comes to a halt. UN demographers once believed the train would stop around 2075. Now they say world population will continue growing into the next century.
Read the full article: Los Angeles Times.
This article is the first part of a series of five by Los Angeles Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss and staff photographer Rick Loomis who travelled across Africa and Asia to document the causes and consequences of rapid population growth. There are links to the other parts of the series next to this article.
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